Haven Newsletter January, 2011.
Sign up here to get Haven Newsletter delivered to your email doorstep.
This month I am featuring the author, Susan Pohlman of the beautiful memoir Halfway to Each Other (Guidepostsbooks 2009) which is set in Italy during a time of transformation in her marriage and in herself.
Our Theme: With Every Ending, There is a Beginning.
Windows by Laura Munson
Part of the beauty of having a published book is meeting other writers who have long been hard at work at your shared craft, swapping stories from what otherwise is a very insular, quiet life– except of course, during book promo. My new friend Susan Pohlman knows all about both. But more than that, she knows what it is to write a memoir about a rough time in her marriage. To have taken the very deliberate journey not only to move her family to Italy for a year in hopes of saving her marriage, but to have written through her pain and discovery in her wonderful memoir: Halfway to Each Other.
We spoke on the phone yesterday for almost two hours, and one of the things which sparked a host of sharing and collective understanding had to do with the notion of endings being beginnings. People ask me all the time how I could possibly not take my husband’s words, “I don’t love you anymore” personally. How I could keep from engaging the drama around those words, and how I could practice empathy and even forgiveness with him. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in this year of interviews and subsequent reflection. Yes, I loved this man. No, I did not believe he truly had run dry of love for me. Yes, I saw this as a crisis of his own soul brought on by years of career failure, fear, and desperation. But there’s another component of this that I have left out of most of my interviews, and which perhaps I’ve only just now landed upon.
In that moment when he made that heartbreaking proclamation, I felt a deep sense of relief. And even of gratitude. He had come to the end of something. And when we come to the end of something, that’s when things happen. For good or bad. That’s when there is a window in which change and healing can take place. Susan and Tim had come to the end of their marriage as they knew it and they took a stand for it by changing their lives– selling their house, surrendering their belongings– going on an epic journey together with their children. There are people who talk about that sort of drastic move. And people who actually do it. They did it, and it provided that window and that healing.
I didn’t want to be with a man who was telling himself inwardly that he didn’t love me anymore. When he spoke it, it gave us that window. We healed through that time right here in our own home, but it was still a deliberate act he performed in speaking those words. And a deliberate act on my part to give him the space he needed to work through his crisis. It might seem cowardly or cruel of him to utter those words, but I never viewed it like that. He was putting the end to a stage of our marriage that no longer fed him. And in that act, he found a renewed love. When I told him that I didn’t buy it—that I really felt this was about his relationship with himself and that he was transferring his own feelings toward himself onto me, he could have said, “Nope. I don’t care what you think. I’m out of here.” But he didn’t. He saw the window.
Where are the endings and beginnings in your life? Where are the windows and what would happen if you opened them and took in that first breath of transformation? Please enjoy this insightful essay by Susan Pohlman, and feel free to share your own stories and questions. We will both be here to read and reply. Yrs. Laura
Marriage in Tough Times
Letting go by Susan Pohlman
Writers need other writers. We are called to the same tribe on this lovely planet, scribes who have been given the exquisite burden of capturing the human condition in all of its glories and shames on paper. We can’t help ourselves. Sometimes our stories are thrust into the general consciousness of society, and sometimes they sit quietly in drawers and upon shelves waiting to be summoned.
Our genres connect us. It is a thrill for me to find another writer who is inspired by similar truths. Like hikers who have traversed an unexplored canyon from opposite sides, we have arrived at the same meadow. Sitting down to talk of our journeys is one of the experiences that makes the long hours of pecking away at the computer well worth it.
I had the pleasure of chatting with one such writer, Laura Munson, author of This is Not The Story You Think It Is. What was supposed to be a quick phone call of introduction turned into a lengthy conversation that I will hold close. We shared our experiences of family life and why we chose to fight for our marriages rather than flee when bitter disillusionment came knocking on the door.
I loved her book. I loved that she held firm to her own core. Like the strong mast of a sail boat in a raging storm at sea, she did not break. Though she would endure conversations that no wife wants to hear and rejections that pierced her heart, she understood that there are times when a spouse’s words reflect the pain in his own soul, not hers. She was willing to give her husband time and space and did not internalize that decision as weakness. Rather, such choices exhibit great emotional and spiritual strength and a willingness to surrender to outcomes unknown. The exact qualities that marriage takes sometimes. It is familiar territory.
In May of 2003, while hosting a business trip to Italy, my husband and I took a break from entertaining clients and walked along the Ligurian sea where Christopher Columbus had learned to sail as a boy. The elegant beauty of Santa Margherita lulled us into silence as we ambled along, lost in our own thoughts. We had been married eighteen years, had two beautiful children, and a cozy home on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
From the outside, our lives were idyllic, but on the inside we were painfully disconnected and confused. Neither one of us could figure out (and trust me, we tried every avenue known to man) why we had become so miserable and lonely together. I knew that our days were numbered since I had quietly, and with paralyzing despair, hired a lawyer prior to our trip. What I did not know was that a mere five minutes in the future my husband, Tim, would utter the phrase that would open a window for us, and change our lives forever. He stopped, asked me to move my empty gaze from the blue of the sea to the blue of his tear filled eyes and said, “I could live here.”
These four simple words began a gut wrenching, two day conversation that ended with our signatures on a year’s lease to an apartment in Genoa-Nervi. Tim would quit his job, we would sell our house, and move our family to Italy. We would choose to regard our past eighteen years together with reverence even though our emotions were roiling below the surface heated by years of accumulated hurts and disappointments. We would start over. Maintaining the sanctity of our family, we decided, was worth trying. It was irrational, ridiculous, reckless and the best decision of our lives.
Two months later we were living in Italy. Our children, Katie (14) and Matt (11) were doubtful and fearful at first, but as we slowly slipped out of the constraints of our fast-paced Los Angeles lifestyle, we found something far sweeter. We traded in the American Dream for a dream of our own as we slowly realized that our lifestyle in Los Angeles had started, at some unknown point, to work in opposition to the values we held dear. A fine line that we had failed to notice as we ran across it, to-do lists in clenched fists.
By drastically simplifying our lives, struggling to learn a foreign language and navigating our new Italian village lifestyle, we learned what it felt like to be a family again. The challenge put us all back on the same side of the fence. Teamwork and active problem solving in a new culture provided opportunities for intimacy and abundant humor. It was both therapeutic and exhilarating.
We realized that over planning our family’s life had stifled the excitement of discovery. Dawn to midnight schedules that had filled each day extinguished any possibility of happenstance. Letting go of shoulds and musts and adopting an attitude of “let’s see where this takes us” allowed for the rebirth of enchantment and delight, two important elements that feed one’s soul. Adventure became a surprisingly powerful and restorative way of life. It forced us to live in the moment and be present for each other.
The experience was beyond our wildest imaginings and taught me many things. Some are the same truths that Laura and I shared on our phone call. Besides the fact that we both found Italy to be the land of enchantment, we agreed that sometimes beginnings are disguised as endings. That relationships are not a destination but about transformation, and if we choose to see the closing of a chapter for what it is, it doesn’t have to destroy the family.
The ending may be the end of a dream, the end of a career, the end of a lifestyle, or the realization that reality doesn’t quite match what we always thought our lives would look like. And that ending might be messy. It might throw the family off its axis as it hurls tough words and inconvenient truths across the very room where your first child was conceived. But endings end, too. And that’s where the magic can happen if we open our hearts to possibility and unforeseen circumstance that may decide to just lay its beautiful self before us like a furnished apartment overlooking the Ligurian Sea.
Endings and beginnings are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes, especially when the stakes are great and we are deeply hurting, the only thing that keeps us from flipping the coin over is fear. It is important that, as couples, we cultivate courage and embrace the whole of marriage. Appreciating that the good times allow for celebration and the tough times offer unimaginable opportunity for growth.
Susan Pohlman is a freelance writer living in Scottsdale, AZ. Her essays have been published in The Washington Times, Family Digest, The Family, Raising Arizona Kids, Guideposts Magazine, Homelife Magazine, AZ Parenting and Italiannotebook.com.
She has written three, award-winning short films. The Toast received two awards in the 2008 TIVA-DC Peer Awards, and Here,There, and Everywhere received awards in four categories in the 2009 TIVA-DC Peer Awards. The Misadventures of Matilda Mench won best screenplay in the 2010 Baltimore 48 Hour Film Project and the 2010 CINE Golden Eagle Award for best Independent Fiction Short.
Halfway to Each Other is her first book and winner of the relationships category in the 2010 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It has been shortlisted for the Inspy Award.
You can reach Susan at: http://www.susanpohlman.com